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Slow Silk – the process
Every stage of the silk-making process is important – and weaving is only one of them, not the most time-consuming. The number of tools involved is impressive – looms and shuttles of course, but also a variety of spinning devices, reeling devices, silkworm raising stands and trays, ikat frames, and colour-specific dye-pots, ladles, buckets, rods… All these tools are traditional and manually operated, and can be easily maintained or replaced. They are made predominantly of local wood and bamboo. Using such tools, that are definitely ‘low-tech’, is not necessarily difficult to learn, but using them well requires considerable skill. Fuel for dyeing is wood (to produce intense and controllable heat), used in the same clay stoves that are used for cooking food. Rain and well water, i.e. the purest we have, is used for all silk-processing operations.
Like all bombyx silkworms, our indigenous varieties feed on mulberry leaves. These are collected several times a day and put on large wicker trays where the caterpillars grow until they stop eating – then they start to spin their cocoons, at which point they are transferred to another set of cocoon-separating trays. Throughout this process, the site must be kept free from mosquitoes and ants by natural means (silkworms do not like chemical pesticides).
We have conducted an assessment of how much raw material goes into the making of a narrow scarf. The yarn for this scarf will have used the silk from an average of 2500 silkworms, who will have eaten a total of 28 kilograms of mulberry leaves in just a few days.
Extracting the silk.
After a few days the larvae are ready to break free from the cocoons and become adult moths – at this time women’s every other duty must be left aside. Days are spent extracting the silk by putting the cocoons in a pot of hot water and pulling up a number of filaments from several cocoons simultaneously, to produce a strong thread – the number of filaments/cocoons varies depending on the desired yarn thickness, from about 40 to 80. One kilogramme of raw silk is extracted in about two very full days of work. Average yields per cocoon are around 800 metres of filament. Women must take care to produce reasonably homogeneous thickness of thread by gathering filaments from a constant number of cocoons.
The typical raw silk of Isan is golden, although there are some whiter varieties. Raw silk is rough, and must first undergo a degumming process – the outer layer of protein is removed by boiling the silk in a detergent. Our natural detergent is the traditional one of our region, rain water filtered through banana charcoal, in which the raw silk is boiled. The fibre then becomes paler, and very soft.
The degummed silk is spun and reeled – twisting the yarn to make it strong. In the process the spinner must also remove the bits of slub, to a lesser or greater extent depending on the texture of the fabric to be woven thereafter. She must also separate the finer yarn from the inner and middle cocoon from the thicker outer cocoon thread that is not used for weaving (but we put it to good use in knitwork, and in some weavings where we want a very uneven texture). Furthermore, traditional silk yarn does not have the evenness of scientifically improved and industrially processed silk, so the spinner may have to separate some lengths of thicker yarn from a batch of otherwise fine silk. Skilled and careful spinning is essential for the quality of dyeing and weaving. It takes one very full day to spin 100 grammes of silk.
Spun silk to be dyed may first be soaked in a bath of mordant – usually alum, which will help fix the dye in the yarn. Certain colours prefer other mordants (e.g. kafir lime leaves, salt, lime) to be used together with, or after, the dye itself. Such mordanting is not applicable to cold-dyed silk (with indigo for instance).
Natural dyeing calls for plenty of knowledge that grows through experimentation. Different parts are used, depending on the plant – roots, wood, bark, rinds, fruit, leaves, flowers, seeds. Every dye-plant and insect requires a different recipe (if not different recipes for different colours from just one plant) – different mordants, temperatures, soakings, drying methods. The time required to dye a particular colour can vary from one hour to many days. Some colours require repeated sequences of dipping or boiling in the dye-pot followed by drying. Dyeing yellow from jackfruit wood takes one day, as does purple from butterfly pea or lac. Red from lac or sappanwood, and green from butterfly pea, take at least two days. But black from ebony fruit takes six days, with about three dyeing sequences a day.
Indigo requires two to three weeks, sometimes longer. It is the most mysterious and demanding dye of all, done by only a few of our artisans who have the appropriate respect and nurturance for the indigo pot. Technically speaking, indigo must undergo reduction (removal of oxygen) in the indigo pot, where lime, charcoal water, sugarcane are added to the indigo paste and the balance of ‘flavours’ must be monitored, and if necessary corrected, every day. The indigo pot must thus be ‘visited’ regularly, but only at specific times of the day. The pot matures for at least one week before it can be used. Over-use of a pot within a given day kills the power of indigo, and anyway dyeing can correctly be done only once at dawn and once at dusk. The dye is fixed by oxygen returned to it at the time of drying the fibre.
Whatever the colour, dyeing and drying require constant attention to evenness of colour penetration – careful stirring and squeezing in the dye-pot, and tugging at braids of yarn set out to dry to avoid spotty colouring. Yarn is usually dried in the shade, although a few colours need drying in the sun. After dyeing the yarn is spun again (especially if the dye has caused slub to appear), and reeled.
Dyeing in natural colours for ikat
This form of tie-dye, shared by all Tai ethnic groups, involves a complex decorative technique and two to five colours – hence total dyeing time for any given piece is considerably longer than for plain weave pieces. Un-dyed yarn is first wound across a frame of the same width as the loom. Little bits of nylon string (in the past banana fibre string was used) are tied up very tight in the places where the weaver wants to retain the un-dyed hue, and the motif gradually builds up with these little ‘packets’ over the whole frame. Then the yarn is carefully removed from the frame and given its first colour – for instance, yellow.
The yarn is thoroughly rinsed and dried. If the weaver wants to add another colour, say red, she winds the now yellow yarn (the little packets in un-dyed tone are still there) back onto her frame and ties up more little packets where she wants the motif to remain yellow. The whole operation is repeated now with red dye, and again if the weaver wants to retain some red details in her design before doing the final colour – a dark hue, black or brown, that will produce the background colour of the woven piece.
The ikat braid is put back on the frame for removal of the little strings – using a tiny sharp knife or cutter, the weaver takes care not to cut the silk yarn, as the ikat design in its true colours emerges.
Finally the dyed ikat silk yarn is reeled and transferred to small bobbins that will fit in the shuttle, ready for weaving. The bobbins are strung together in the right order for weaving – failing which the ikat motif will be ruined.
Ikat is one of the most demanding textile techniques. It takes precise geometry and calculations, to produce even a simple pattern with the right proportions – not to mention imagination, a repertoire of traditional symbols and even deeper precision skills for more complex motifs. Most ikat-designers tie up the little motif packets without a model on paper and without measurements. The dyeing is difficult too – if the motif is very detailed, care must be taken that the dye penetrates evenly in between the tight little packets (without seeping into the latter). With natural dyes, only certain colours can be used in the sequencing of dyes, and dyers must have a keen sense of dye-stuff, colour and mordant compatibility. Finally, the actual weaving – possibly the ‘easiest’ part of ikat making – must involve great care for proper alignment of the motif at each passage of the shuttle.
Setting up the warp.
Traditional silk looms and artisanal dyeing can allow lengths of warp up to 10-14 metres – resulting in 5 to 7 woven pieces. A special frame with spikes can be used for sorting out the warp, failing which a group of women help each other stretch out the yarn in a large open area, using whatever is handy, such as a wheelbarrow… After this the yarn is tied up to the threads of a previous warp on the loom. The whole process can take two to four days. The warp is stiffened for weaving using rice water.
Isan women use frame looms for all their techniques. Looms in the past used to be made by weavers’ male relatives – now that most traditional male skills are forgotten, the looms are ordered from one of the few specialists in major weaving towns. Most other tools can be made locally and can be repaired at home. Some women prefer PVC shuttles while many retain the old wooden ones.
Different weaving techniques require a variety of looms.
Plain weave is the most common technique – ikat is plain weave, as is weaving in plain colours without a motif, or with stripes and chequers. Plain weave can be very difficult – e.g. in ikat, and in minutely sophisticated designs such as the now rare motif that we call ‘Yaa Lai’ from the name of our senior member who successfully brought it back to life after half a century of oblivion.
Supplementary weft techniques use special looms with extra pedals or specific heddle arrangements to allow repetitive relief motifs to be formed with added yarn in the weft. Float weave is a supplementary weft technique that produces a diamond shaped motif and a very supple fabric. In our village it used to be woven for ordination shawls and for wearing at the monastery. Not all weavers are capable of correctly playing the four pedals required for this loom.
More ornate motifs are produced in supplementary weft in narrow bands. They require the weaver to have an assistant, moving each line of the pattern forward at each passage of the shuttle, and demand considerable care and patience for very slow weaving (about 30 to 40 cm per day). Another technique, even more difficult, is the discontinuous supplementary weft where the weaver creates her own pattern line by line, without the help of a pre-organised pattern. The highly ornate narrow bands, in vivid colours, used to form the hem of women’s sarongs woven in more subdued hues. The technique was also used to make Buddhist manuscript covers for the monastery.
All weaving techniques demand skilled attention to evenness of the selvedges, even beating strength, and care for the loom (uneven edges sometimes signal a need for loom repair). Women sometimes spend days sorting out a technical problem.
A length of silk woven for shawls has unwoven spaces between pieces – these unwoven segments are cut and fashioned into tassels (here too, care and patience are needed to produce tassels even thickness and twist).
Finally every finished piece undergoes one or several soaks and rinses using local plants to wash out excess dye and rice water – these rinses are also a good conditioner for the silk.In a village house ‘accidents’ can happen – spots due to a child’s dirty fingers or to a creature’s droppings from the ceiling… in such cases, the piece is redyed (which often results in even more beautiful hues).
Natural dyes and their mordants can have various effects on the fibre – making it more soft and shiny, or thicker, or rather matt and dry with a texture akin to linen.